It wasn’t so long ago that if you mentioned tacos to most Americans, they would assume you were talking about the uncomplicated, Mexican "sandwich" filled with beef.

Over time, however, the taco evolved in this country, and it became nearly as common to find shrimp, chicken, chorizo or fried fish contained within those crisp corn tortillas. At the same time, chefs and foodservice operators sought to differentiate their tacos from the competition by giving the popular Mexican street food the upscale treatment with such rich accompaniments as sour cream, guacamole, cheeses and creamy sauces. As a result, though, calorie counts for many tacos climbed.

Then, a lean alternative in the form of turkey was introduced, and a new wave of more nutritious tacos took off. Not only could turkey tacos be found on menus in commercial restaurants — most famously with Del Taco’s 2014 systemwide rollout — but they also were served in such noncommercial venues as schools, colleges, corporate cafeterias and hospitals. Even First Lady Michelle Obama, well known for her healthful eating initiatives, was spotted eating turkey tacos at a Fairfax County, Va., public school — she chose a whole-grain tortilla and brown rice, of course.

Turkey producers say that as diners have become more familiar with the meat’s lean profile — it contains about 30-percent less fat than ground beef — and beef-like texture, they’ve seen interest in turkey tacos grow across multiple foodservice segments.

And as beef and pork prices continue to soar, experts see potential for greater inroads as turkey costs and supply remain steady.

Customers, however, are choosing them for taste, say a trio of chefs who’ve watched demand for turkey tacos rise steadily in their operations. With the help of dietitians and efforts to spread the word about the offering, cafeterias have coaxed many hospital workers into trying the turkey tacos.

Aatul Jain, operations manager and executive chef at Saint Clare’s Health System in Denville, N.J., prepares his tacos by using a thick, scratch-made turkey chili. Since the seasonings required for his typical chili recipes are nearly identical to taco meat seasonings, he says he can cross-utilize the base for a number of applications, saving on labor and inventory.

“We offer a cyclical menu in our four cafeterias, and turkey chili comes on every three weeks,” Jain says. “Since our turkey chili is not loose, it’s great to make a [flour tortilla] taco with it.”

Jain says fresh guacamole, sour cream and salsa are always available should customers want to add some pizzazz to their tacos, and if they’d like tomatoes and lettuce, they’re always available from the salad bar.

When Jain rolled out a turkey taco “Thursday Chef Station” two years ago, he says customers chose ground beef 50 percent of the time from an array of seafood and veggie fillings. But when turkey strutted into the mix, choices began to change.

“Now, turkey [accounts for] about 35 percent [of taco sales], vegetarian choices are 20 to 25, beef is about 35 percent, and the rest is seafood,” he says. In the beginning, his cafeterias marketed turkey’s health-halo virtues to enhance awareness. But now Jain says sales of the product are growing on their own.

“It’s taken a natural shift to the point that I don’t have to talk about it: people ask for it,” he says.

Tim Parker, executive chef at HCA Virginia’s Johnston-Wills Hospital in Midlothian, Va., says he learned of turkey tacos when he challenged a supplier to bring him some innovative meat options. The supplier brought him ground turkey that included printed suggestions for using it. One item on the list was turkey tacos, and when Parker asked about it, the supplier convinced him the ground poultry it required would perform like beef, yet with fewer calories.

“I pitched the idea to our dietitians, and they got behind it by putting out some literature about how much it’s better for you than red meat,” Parker says. “We’re tasked to do action stations in the cafeteria, and I was curious to see if a ground turkey taco station would really work. … I think some people didn’t even notice it was turkey. They just saw it and thought, ‘Ooh, tacos!’”

Parker asked that a dietitian remain at the action station to answer any customer questions. He was surprised at how many wanted to talk about it. “People were engaged and wanted to know more,” Parker says. “It’s fun to have something to teach them with while you’re feeding them.”

When executive chef Michael Turner runs turkey tacos as a limited-time offering at ConocoPhillips’ headquarters in Houston, the sales bump is always significant, he says. Since it’s part of the cafeterias healthful options menu, the company subsidizes the entrée’s cost to incentivize employees to choose it. Employee price is $2.

Turner mixes things up by offering a grilled turkey breast taco option and “a more home-style ground turkey choice,” he says. “We like to offer them with really flavorful things like fresh mango-habanero pico di gallo, salsa verde and fire-roasted salsa. I’m from San Diego, so I like to bring in a California feel to it with black bean and corn salsa, fresh guacamole or sliced avocado.”

Parker and Jain both say effective marketing helped turn their customers on to turkey tacos. Hospital employees receive weekly emails of menus and each day’s specials, and Jain says cafeteria staffers take menus to all nurses’ stations for added reminders.

“We also make it fun on taco day by playing some Hispanic music in the cafeteria,” he says. “[Diners] walk in and can smell all the right spices, and it sets a mood. We do all we can to get them sucked into the excitement of the thing.”